“The advancement and dissemination of knowledge”.

This is why the University of Edinburgh exists. That is its mission statement. The university at which I studied has a proud history of holding to this mission. Its graduates have contributed enormously: Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell, James Clerk Maxwell, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, J.M. Barrie, and Sir Walter Scott; Adam Smith and David Hume (though he was kicked out for being an atheist).

‘Influencing the world since 1583’. That is the current strapline. And it is not mere hyperbole. From American founding father to James Wilson to Professor Peter Higgs – whose postulated boson delivered the Large Hadron Collider, Edinburgh can brag about its staff and its alumni with the best of them.

The telephone, micro-economics, Treasure Island, Peter Pan and Sherlock Holmes; electromagnetism and the great enigma of modern physics. These are what Edinburgh is famous for. These are its history. These things, and something else. Because Edinburgh is unique among Britain’s ancient universities: it wasn’t founded by the church. It was founded by the town council.

And to this day, it retains some of these links, it holds on to some of its quasi-democratic past. The Lord Provost of Edinburgh, George Grubb, sits on the university court – its governing body. The chair of the court – the Rector – is elected every three years by the staff and students. Other members of this board of governors are – at least in theory – elected by different sections of the staff, by students, or by graduates. Whilst the university is at core run like many others, it at least has a final layer of democracy, a small air of accountability.

And to this day – or, perhaps I should say until yesterday – you could tell. In my time as a student at the university – as a student activist, and, ultimately, as a member for a year of that vaguely democratic governing committee – my experience of the university administration was often frustrating. But I always felt that at least some of them understood what the university was about. Some realised that we were there for a simple reason: to advance and disseminate knowledge and understanding. Some understood that this means that everyone capable of learning should have a fair chance to make their way into the university, and to stay there.

Today, that committee – the university court – made a profound decision. They chose to charge students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland £36,000 for a degree. Voting to charge £9000 a year for each of the four years taken by most students at Edinburgh makes it the UK’s most expensive public university: an institution founded on the basic principle of the democratisation of knowledge now charges more for a degree than anyone other.

Which students will come to Scotland now? For generations, bright students from Northern Ireland, Wales and England have converged in the Edinburgh because of the university. The equivalent influx on 1960s California’s free universities delivered Silicon Valley and California’s booming economy. Scotland had the chance to be the California of the UK. But today, Edinburgh University has thrown that chance away. And they have thrown away hundreds of years of history: you cannot claim to exist primarily to disseminate knowledge when you charge more for that knowledge than any other UK university. You cannot do so honestly. And when you charge so much, when so many will make their decision about whether to study at Edinburgh based on the level of the fees rather than their interest or intellect, can the university truly expect that its future graduates will be so illustrious? Can they continue to ‘influence the world’ as they follow it into the auction hall? What a tragedy.

 

 

 

Adam Ramsay

About Adam Ramsay

Adam is Co-Editor of Open Democracy UK and a green activist based in Edinburgh. He co-founded Bright Green in 2010.